Sunday’s final results for the Coca-Cola 600 were so ass-backwards that I found it difficult putting this column together and deciding who was “hot or not.” None of the top 5 finishing drivers were on “hot” streaks, seeing as how four of the five posted their best result of the season and even race winner Kevin Harvick had suffered some inconsistency the last few weeks. Meanwhile, most of the major players in the event finished outside of the top 10 due to some gutsy yet unsuccessful fuel mileage gambles.
Regardless, a few drivers did stand out regarding their recent numbers, even with the unpredictable finish to the 600. Speaking of which, what a great day for racing! Between the last lap screw-up by rookie J.R. Hildebrand in the Indianapolis 500 to the final restart chaos created by the aforementioned fuel mileage race in the 600, viewers were left breathless and on the edge of their seats as both races came to a close on what is one of the most exciting days in racing. Assuming that some casual or non-racing fans were tuning in to see what all the hype was about, this may have been a huge boost for American motorsports.
By the way, I’m going to be a softie and send out some big hugs to members of Junior Nation. Though several drivers fell just short of winning their first race all season on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s excruciatingly slow pace as he ran out of gas on the final lap was nothing short of heartbreaking for those that have waited nearly three years now for a victory from NASCAR’s most popular driver. Rest assured, though, Earnhardt _will_ return to victory lane this year.
I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend, and now back to your regularly scheduled programming…
*Kevin Harvick* – One glance at the current Sprint Cup Series points standings shows that there is only one driver “hotter” than Harvick right now—Carl Edwards.
Harvick’s victory on Sunday was his third of the season—the first driver to hit that mark in 2011—and moved him up from fifth to second in the standings and is now 36 points back from leader Edwards. Even if for some unforeseen and highly unlikely reason Harvick sees himself plummet outside of the top 10 in points, he has all but assured himself a Chase spot with NASCAR’s new wild card system coming into play at the beginning of the 10 week playoff format that will begin in September. NASCAR implemented a rule this season that says that after 26 races, the top 10 in points will be locked into the Chase, along with the two drivers with the most wins outside of the top 10 and inside of the top 20 will able to use the wild card position.
Considering the fact that Harvick was such a major player in last year’s championship battle, it looks like “Happy” will make yet another run at the title this year to try and seal the deal once and for all in 2011.
*David Ragan* – After replacing Mark Martin at Roush Fenway Racing in 2007, Ragan has yet to live down the infamous “dart without feathers” moniker Tony Stewart so harshly bestowed upon the young driver in his rookie season. Since then, Ragan’s career has been a crumbling mess of mediocrity (at best!) and there are very few people that still believe in the Georgia native.
Jack Roush apparently still does.
Let’s take a look at some of the names that have disappeared from RFR’s racing stable in the past few years: Todd Kluever, Danny O’Quinn Jr., Erik Darnell, Colin Braun, etc. All of these drivers seemingly had potential, but for whatever reason were unable to continue with one of the best teams in all of racing. In fact, when was the last time you heard from Kluever, O’Quinn, or Darnell? O’Quinn occasionally took on some start-and-park rides last season in the Nationwide Series and has been in two races for Go Green Racing this year (his last start was Nashville). Meanwhile, Darnell hasn’t made a start since Texas of last year in the Nationwide Series, and Kluever hasn’t seen a NASCAR track since 2009 and no one seems to have heard from him since. Braun was released last season and has moved over to the Grand-Am Series.
The point? Roush may put drivers in some of the strongest equipment but be it sponsorship, bad luck, or just a lack of development, drivers are kicked out the door at the slightest misstep. In other words, drivers either get going or go home with this team, which is why it’s so surprising Ragan has stuck around this long. However, take a look at Ragan’s Nationwide Series teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and the realization comes that Roush knows what it takes to turn an ugly duckling into a swan.
Ragan’s second-place finish in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 may have been due to fuel mileage, but surviving a 600 mile race isn’t easy and there were several veteran drivers that were not able to do just that. Ragan’s best season was his sophomore year back in 2008, and right now it looks like he could easily match it if he can nail down some consistent finishes. Whether that will be enough to keep his ride with Roush—and just as importantly, his sponsor UPS—we’ll have to wait and see. But maybe this is a step in the right direction for the “dart without feathers”.
*Honorable Mention:* *Kurt Busch* grabbed his sixth top 10 finish of the year and second top five, moving him from eighth to sixth in points.
*Dale Earnhardt Jr.* – Coulda, shoulda, woulda, it doesn’t matter. Earnhardt’s last lap loss was indeed heartbreaking, but nonetheless continued an upward trend this season for a driver that hasn’t seen the inside of a victory lane in nearly three years. On the heels of an offseason shakeup that saw Steve Letarte replacing Lance McGrew as Earnhardt’s crew chief, along with a move next door to share space with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and company (who, by the way, have won the last five championships), Earnhardt has since seen an increase in communication, confidence, and competitiveness.
Though inconsistency has plagued the No. 88 team as of late (three of his last four finishes have been outside of the top 10), Earnhardt is a solid fourth in points and looks to be safely inside the top 10 in points with only 14 races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in September. That’s a promising start, considering the fact Earnhardt has finished outside of the top 20 the last two seasons. But maybe let’s not run out of gas next time, huh guys?
*Denny Hamlin* – For someone who came so close to winning his first Sprint Cup Series championship last year, Hamlin has sure failed to impress so far in 2011. Hamlin, who lost the championship by 39 points to Jimmie Johnson last year (a very small margin with last year’s points system), is finally starting to run like the Hamlin of last year.
A 16th place finish at Dover was the lone finish outside of the top 10 in the last four races for Hamlin, who was also able to lead a good chunk of laps in Sunday’s grueling 600-mile race (24 laps total). Hamlin is still dangling outside of the top 10 in points at 12th, though, and needs to kick it into high gear if he wants to make another run at the title this year.
*Honorable Mention:* *Brian Scott* grabbed his third Nationwide Series top 10 of the season last weekend in Charlotte, and remains ninth in points.
*Brian Vickers* – After Vickers was sidelined for most of last season for blood clots, I didn’t expect his return to NASCAR to be anything stellar. However, I didn’t expect it to be so lackluster either.
Let’s start with the good: Vickers has finished every single race this season, has four top 10s, and one top five. Not too bad, right?
Now here is the bad: No laps led, only _four_ finishes on the lead lap in 13 races, and an appalling 28th in points. I mean … seriously?!
Alright, so, I admit Vickers’s career hasn’t exactly had the “wow” factor other than a couple of career highs (i.e., wins). Especially with Red Bull Racing, the highs haven’t exactly outnumbered the lows. But right up until Vickers began his medical break from racing, RBR had begun raking in better and better numbers. Vickers gave the team their first win and first Chase appearance back in 2009, and the team had high hopes heading into 2010. In the 11 races Vickers was able to compete in that year, he had four top 10s, 27 laps led, and was sitting 20th in points. Not exactly dazzling, but the team had also been hurt by two consecutive DNFs just a couple of weeks prior to Vickers’s hiatus. Whether or not Vickers would have been able to extend on the 2009 success, we will never know.
Right now, it looks like staying inside the top 30 is a bigger issue for this team than heading back to victory lane.
*Greg Biffle* – Biffle probably doesn’t deserve to be here, considering the fact that he had one of the best cars of Sunday night. Between his cool box failing just a few laps into the race, a speeding penalty, and losing a lap, it’s a wonder Biffle was even able to get back up front at all. I guess 600 miles will do that for you!
However, through 13 races in 2011, Biffle just doesn’t have it. 4 top 10s would look a lot better with a higher points position and fewer races, but 4 out of 13 is a failing grade. Considering Biffle’s incredibly slow start to the season (three finishes of 20th or worse in the first three races), it’s a wonder he’s even been able to climb to 11th in points.
But he could be higher.
Take a look at Biffle’s last six finishes: 13th, 19th, 8th, 15th, 7th, and 4th.
His performance has been picking up, but it’s those pesky non-top-10 runs that are making it harder to envision Biffle as a Chase contender this year, let alone a championship contender. However, this weekend the series is racing at Kansas Speedway, where Biffle is the most recent winner and is usually a force to be reckoned with every single race. There would be no better place for Biffle to shake off some of the mediocre finishes and start laying down some solid results.
*Honorable Mention:* Justin Allgaier finished 13th in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Charlotte, his second finish outside of the top 10 in the last three races.
*Jeff Gordon* – So was Phoenix just a fluke, because there is certainly no evidence to suggest otherwise. Gordon’s win at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this season was a break in a long winless streak for the 4-time champion, and was supposed to foreshadow great things for Gordon and his new crew chief Alan Gustafson. Gordon is back, baby!
Or not… Since then, Gordon has only finished in the top five twice: Martinsville (one of his best tracks) and Talladega (a crapshoot). Excuse me if I hesitate to applaud.
Gordon has five finishes of 20th or worse in 13 races this season, and is a pathetic 16th in points. If the Chase started tomorrow (it won’t), Gordon would still be in the Chase because of the new wild card rule but there is basically a zero chance of him contending for the championship based on these results. My, how times have changed…
*Jeff Burton* – Richard Childress Racing has had a good year so far. Kevin Harvick has won several races, Clint Bowyer has been very competitive, and even Paul Menard has shown some improvement.
So where is Burton?
RCR’s veteran driver Burton has no finishes inside of the top 10, only five finishes on the lead lap, and is sitting 22nd in points with any hopes of making the Chase fading away with each passing race. Burton certainly hasn’t been contending for wins this year, so even the wild card potential looks bleak at this point. It doesn’t matter anyway, because Burton would be ineligible for a 12th spot in the Chase since he is outside of the top 20 in points.
Last year, all three of RCR’s teams made the Chase, including Burton. While Menard was never expected to be a Chase contender, Burton was. However, Burton most likely will be sitting on the sidelines watching his teammate Harvick racing for the championship, with Bowyer most likely enjoying some success of his own.
I guess there is always next year.
*Honorable Mention:* *Paul Menard* has since fallen off from his early season success, finishing outside of the top 20 in the last four races.
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